For Sam Darnold's sake, Jets must rebuild O-line the Dallas way

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- The stakes got higher this week for the New York Jets' maligned offensive line. Quarterback Sam Darnold returns to the lineup, which means the five guys up front are charged with protecting the franchise's most precious commodity. Every sack -- heck, every quarterback hit -- should serve notice to general manager Joe Douglas that his No. 1 priority in the offseason needs to be the line. Darnold's future depends on it, as does his present.

"They're retarding his growth," a longtime personnel executive said of Jets leadership this week. "You just hope it's not a sign of things to come."

If Douglas needs a blueprint for the rebuild, all he has to do is study this week's opponent, the Dallas Cowboys (3-2). Unlike the Jets, who have refused to invest significant draft capital into the position group, the Cowboys have poured major resources (picks and money) into their line.

They used first-round picks on left tackle Tyron Smith (2011), center Travis Frederick (2013) and right guard Zack Martin (2014). They selected left guard Connor Williams in the second round (2018) and signed right tackle La'el Collins as an undrafted free agent (2015) after he slid because of character concerns.

The Cowboys' homegrown starting five have combined for 15 Pro Bowls and six All-Pro (first-team) selections, forming the foundation of the team's recent success.

The Jets? When they go into the draft, they treat college linemen as if they're B-list wedding guests. Since 2010, they have picked only three linemen in the first three rounds, tied with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Arizona Cardinals for the fewest, according to Pro Football Reference.

Take a harder look and you will see the Jets' neglect runs deeper than that of the Bucs and Cards. The Cards used two of the picks in the first round, the Bucs two in the second. The Jets have no first-rounders, one second-rounder (Vlad Ducasse, 2010) and two third-rounders (Brian Winters, 2013, and Chuma Edoga, 2019). The last time the Jets spent a first-round pick on a lineman was 2006, when they drafted left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson and center Nick Mangold -- a double-barrel move that was a catalyst for the playoff runs in 2009 and 2010.

The Jets (0-4) have to get back to that O-line mentality. They have to do it for Darnold, who will never reach his potential if they Andrew-Luck him.

"When you look at the personnel of the best offensive lines, they've invested in a lot of top picks," the executive said. "Every once in a while you get lucky and find a college free agent, but if you want to do it and do it right, you have to invest with picks."

On the day he was hired, Douglas explained his philosophy, saying he believes winning teams are built from the inside out -- i.e., in the trenches. He also expressed a sense of urgency to get it done while Darnold is on his rookie contract, which runs through 2021. It means he needs to get to work, quickly, but don't expect an overnight fix. This will take years.

Not one of the Jets' starting five is guaranteed to be back in 2020. Left tackle Kelvin Beachum, center Ryan Kalil and right tackle Brandon Shell (benched on Sunday) will be unrestricted free agents, and injured left guard Kelechi Osemele ($11.7 million) could be a cap casualty. Winters has the best chance to stick, along with Edoga (who replaced Shell) and versatile backup Jonotthan Harrison.

"Overall, we just haven't played very well," coach Adam Gase said of the line, which has allowed 23 sacks. "There's just no way around it. We just haven't played very good as an offense in general."

It's never a good thing when the coach still is tinkering with lineup combinations after four games. The early word is that it will be the same five as last week, with Alex Lewis at left guard and Edoga and right tackle.

"You'd like to be able to say, 'These are our five and here we go,' but we're trying to figure that out," Gase said.

The good news for the Jets is the draft figures to include a handful of highly ranked offensive tackles. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. rates Tristan Wirfs (Iowa), Andrew Thomas (Georgia) and Alex Leatherwood (Alabama) as potential top-20 picks. A peek at free agency shows Brandon Scherff, Anthony Castonzo and Andrus Peat as top names who could hit the market.

Good players are always available, but it takes a shrewd talent evaluator to find them. The successful teams know how to marry talent and system, but it takes continuity to achieve that -- something the Jets have lacked. They're on their fifth offensive line coach since 2012, and current coach Frank Pollack can't feel too secure with the way things have unraveled.

From 2008-11, they had one of the best in the business in Bill Callahan. That, veteran NFL observers say, is the key -- find a blue-chip coach who can teach and develop talent. Before Callahan, they had Doug Marrone and Bill Muir, both well-respected line coaches. Is it a coincidence they always had top-notch line play in that era? Of course not.

Ironically, Pollack was the Cowboys' line coach from 2015-17, so he knows what it's supposed to look like. The Cowboys moved on from Pollack when their pass protection crumbled, a theme that sounds familiar.

Ultimately, it's up to Douglas -- a former college lineman -- to rebuild the talent base and create a pipeline. You can't overcome a decade of neglect in one offseason, but he needs a big start.

"I hope Joe Douglas is pretty good and understands the blueprint," the personnel executive said. "If not, they'll continue to stay in the abyss."